President Obama’s recent speech (which I wrote about here and here) has an important subtext: it suggests that although the US has “unbreakable” bonds with Israel, Israeli and US interests are increasingly divergent.
Two areas of divergence seem to be Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Regarding Iran, Obama suggests that he will offer incentives for Iran to stop nuclear weapons development, such as assistance in developing peaceful nuclear power — although Iran has rejected this in the past. He is making overtures to improve the relationship by such things as inviting Iranian representatives to 4th of July celebrations.
- The best interpretation is that he thinks that his charm will succeed where others failed.
- The worst is that he judges that stopping Iran is not worth the price the US would have to pay to do so or to allow Israel to do so — in other words, he has already accepted that Iran will go nuclear and is developing policies that take this into account.
Israeli policy is that Iran must be stopped. Estimates vary, but Israeli analysts have said that the point of no return will be reached within a year — and Obama has said in the past that he will try ‘engagement’ for a year before getting tough in an unspecified way.
Regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Obama believes that a Palestinian state should be established in the very near future. He seems to think that Hamas can be persuaded to accept the Quartet conditions of recognition of Israel, ending violence and accepting prior Israel-Palestinian Authority (PA) agreements — despite the fact that it continues to categorically reject them — thus clearing the way for Hamas to participate in the PA.
- As in the case of Iran, the best interpretation is that Obama is again depending on his charm (and General Dayton’s arming and training Fatah forces) to make a sheep out of the Hamas wolf. Unfortunately this plan is guaranteed to fail.
- The worst interpretation is that he knows this but has committed privately to either Iran or Saudi Arabia that he will force a Palestinian state into being in return for some unspecified quid pro quo — possibly something to do with Iraq.
Evidence that Obama is serious about forcing a state into being as quickly as possible is the surprising demand for Israel to stop natural growth in established settlements. Interestingly, I don’t think this is aimed at Israel or the Netanyahu government. While it would have little or no effect on the outcome of any negotiations, Palestinians have been disingenuously claiming that ‘settlement activity’ is a major obstacle to peace, and a freeze would remove one of their excuses for not negotiating.
Israeli policy is that given a weak PA which is unable to control Hamas (and will probably be taken over by it), it would be disastrous to establish a state today, because it would immediately become a base for terrorism — exactly like Gaza.
Both of these issues are tied together by the so-called ‘linkage’ theory. President Obama has said that “solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will provide the tools to effectively engage Iran and fight terrorism”, and this is his main reason to push for a Palestinian state now. This argument is too weak to take seriously.
Israel, on the other hand, points out that Hamas, Hezbollah, and a Syrian missile (and possibly nuclear) buildup are backed by Iran, which means that peace efforts will fail unless this support is removed. And if Iran provides a nuclear umbrella for its proxy armies, they will be even more difficult to defeat.
These policies may serve some short-term US interests — perhaps involving extrication of American forces from Iraq — but in the long term, an American retreat will permit Iran to move from being a regional bully to a major world power. And it will not be a friendly one, as the political and social characteristics of revolutionary Shiite Islam are starkly opposed to the enlightenment values of the West.
Israel and the US, on the other hand, do share the values of democracy, freedom of expression, rights of women and minorities, etc. Israel is the only nation in the region that the US can absolutely depend on as a military ally and intelligence source. The establishment of a Hamas-dominated Palestinian state would complete the encirclement of Israel by hostile, Iranian-sponsored forces. And there is no question that a Palestinian state created today would soon come under control of Hamas. If the US nevertheless brings this about, Israel’s long-term survival is put in question.